BUENOS AIRES — The digital revolution is destroying more jobs than it will create.
For many existing jobs, the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and technology is a real threat. The current digital revolution is turning out to be different from previous ones, which destroyed jobs relating to outdated technologies but created many more jobs. This time, most of the people losing their jobs lack the resources to compete with machines and software that never need any time off. This year at the World Economic Forum at Davos, it was estimated that robots, AI and nanotechnology would together blitz five million jobs worldwide by 2020. They would perhaps create 2.1 million jobs for workers with knowledge of mathematics, architecture and engineering.
The digital wave targets simple administrative jobs that don’t require sophisticated decision-making criteria. The digital revolution also attacks some complex tasks like scanning high-resolution medical imagery to detect pathologies or revising complex contracts. Telephone operators, statisticians and travel agents are expected to be among the worst hit, with demand for phone operators in the United States perhaps falling by about 42% over a decade from 2014, according to consultants 24/7 Wall Street and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Without realizing it, we have already let algorithms claim our working lives, daily commute, entertainment, purchases and even our sexual partners.
A National Public Radio study from 2015 found that more than 97% of telemarketers, cashiers and drivers could disappear by 2025.
The valued professions of the future are likely to be ones that have a "human" focus, meaning people working in mental health, drug abuse or occupational therapy, or dentists and even security forces, which the study found had less than a 0.4% chance of disappearing by 2025. For now, machines are finding it hard to replicate empathy or cooperation between people.
Coffee break — Photo: Joe Van
Without realizing it, we have already let algorithms claim our working lives (LinkedIn), daily commute (Waze), entertainment (Netflix), purchases (Amazon) and even our sexual partners (Tinder).
Israeli writer Yuval Noah Hakari writes in his most recent book Homo Deus that it isn’t just jobs being lost when we let machines make our choices. Our individualism and freedom is also taken from us, he says. How many of us would venture to contradict Waze and select a route different from the one recommended or understand where exactly we can use various customer fidelity points without checking a long list of "rewarding" outlets? These are simple actions but users have shown they welcome their elimination through small technological changes.
Statistics have shown that in recent years we have spent more time using the same applications, which suggests an expectation of automatic and effortless services from companies we depend on. Amazon is testing Amazon Go — stores without employees, reception staff or checkout counters. All the stores have are products.
Customers are identified through an Amazon app. After that, computer vision and sensor fusion determine which products are purchased. Cameras registering movements on shelves means no security is required. Customers accounts are automatically charged when they leave the premises.
The implications of these developments are many, and not always pleasant.
In the best-case scenario, people losing their jobs through digital automation might start to undergo training in other fields. Clearly, not all companies can retrain or relocate their workforce nor would all workers agree to do so.
In case of mass, structural unemployment, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have made proposed ideas like a robot tax and establishing a universal basic income. These are fairly disruptive ideas and are being closely studied (and experimented with) since many governments recognize it’s impossible to reverse the trend of automation.
Here in Argentina, we might aspire to a country where technology can end strikes, picket protests and roadblocks — welcome to anyone who has been in Buenos Aires recently. Perhaps we would all have an income without having to depend on a particular activity, at least until the machines form a union and cut off our internet.